Monday, April 23, 2012

Rooftop Highway Commentary: A Cause Worth Losing

What follows is a guest commentary by John Danis of the organization YESeleven, a grass roots citizens group in favor of upgrading Route 11 to rural expressway standards as set forth in the 2002 “Northern Tier Transportation Study” and opposed to the “I-98” (Rooftop Highway) project. Copies of the 2002 and 2008 transportation studies are available at their website.

“I-98”. There is no plan, no route, no funding. According to Wikipedia there is no federal designation of it as a current or future interstate highway project. The name, ‘I-98’ is fiction except in the minds of its proponents who created it as an advertising and promotion gimmick. Yet, here we go again with the “I-98” crowd doubling down on yet another propaganda campaign of resolutions from towns and villages in St. Lawrence County to once again try to create the illusion that everyone is in favor of this really bad idea.

By one estimate, Jason Clark, “I-98 marketer-in-chief”, received at least 80 thousand dollars, perhaps more, from a network of agencies and bureaucracies; the SLC-IDA, SLRVRDA, OBPA, Massena BDC and the St. Lawrence County Legislature. The legislature alone authorized 40 thousand dollars in 2011 for promotion of the interstate highway concept. They further stated their hope to increase that amount to 50 thousand dollars in 2012. Will they now promote Rt.11 with equal vigor as they claim in their latest resolution?

“We support “I-98 and Rt.11”. That sounds innocent enough except that there has been no discussion about how they intend to support Rt.11 because this is really about “I-98”. Once again, there is no mention of plans, existing studies, economic models, local impacts or funding potential. There have been 35 years of studies that have produced a massive body of facts that clearly identify Rt. 11, upgraded to ‘expressway standards’, (not an interstate highway), as the most feasible and fundable option for the region. What do the resolution seekers say about Rt.11? “Well, of course we support maintaining Rt.11”. Right; so long as “I-98” is the priority project. They continue to argue that 6.3 million dollars, approved for Rt.11, is for more study of “I-98”. In fact, the use of the money for the Rt.11 expressway is a fully authorized use of the funds within the original legislation, requiring no ‘repurposing legislation’. Remember, there is no “I-98”! How could it have been intended for something that was and is officially non-existent? “I-98” advocates are desperate to get money spent on their ‘road-show’ so they can then say, “Well, you’ve spent 6 million dollars, you can’t turn back now! Only 8 or 10 billion to go! We’ve never been closer!”

A troubling part of this episode is that the entities who are signing these resolutions are often the ones least affected. They are not seeking information beyond the sales pitch that the marketeers bring to these resolution meetings, along with the pre-printed, ready-to-sign, resolutions. I found it amusing when I heard that Long Lake had signed the resolution. As a town council member from another town said recently, “The highway would be quite a ways away from us, so it wouldn’t really affect us much”. It will certainly affect the towns it would plow through, though.

Recently, Wade Davis, CEO of the OBPA was discussing the shortfall in funding to complete the new Ogdensburg Port approach road. He correctly said that we need all of our political and civic leaders to work together to find the funding needed to complete the access road. He is seeking 600-thousand dollars, not 6,8 or 10 BILLION, debt-financed dollars. The Rt.11 plan is designed on a pay-as-you-go basis. That would be refreshing.

If you have been following our local and regional news lately, you have, no doubt, heard of the latest propaganda campaign by the “Roof-Top Highway” proponents to restart their ‘resolution campaign’. To that end, they are cynically claiming to support “I-98” studies AND Rt. 11 maintenance. The real purpose of this ploy is to get federal and state governments to shift money into the interstate highway game and away from Rt. 11 improvements in order to create an ongoing rationale to keep putting more and more money into this massively destructive and unnecessary interstate highway, at the expense of all of our other infrastructure. There is little money for either, let alone both!

Curiously, this latest resolution campaign seeks to take 6.3 million dollars, already appropriated and currently being spent on Rt. 11, away from NYS-DOT and given to some unspecified entity to be spent on yet more studies for an interstate highway. To be clear, there is, and has never been any plan for an interstate highway in our region. It is a concept. The Rt.11 Expressway, by contrast is an approved project.

Take a drive from exit 48 to Wellesley Island on I-81. By the logic of the ‘Roof-Toppers”, this 30 mile stretch should be jammed with businesses. It’s right on an interstate highway with easy access south to other manufacturing centers, east west interstate highways, major rail and airport hubs and freshwater ports. It has ready access to the Canadian economy at the terminus with highway 401, which puts you within a 2 hour proximity to Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, not to mention the entire Great Lakes Basin. So, what is along this stretch of road? Sporadic homes and farms and lots of vacant and cheap acreage, just ripe for development. Why hasn’t this theoretically ideal area been developed into a manufacturing / shipping / business mecca? How have Theresa, Redwood, Lafargeville, among other local economies, benefitted from their close proximity to an interstate highway? They haven’t. The simple answer is that highway infrastructure is not the reason or the solution for the lack of business development in the Northern Tier. The “Roof-Toppers” propose to replicate this scenario across the entire region.

The time is now for people in the North Country to speak up to their friends, neighbors, media outlets, community leaders, village, town, county, state and federal elected officials and say enough is enough. It can be done in the form of emails, letters, phone calls, conversations, blog comments and attendance at public meetings. We are already years behind on the approved and largely shovel-ready Rt.11 improvements because of the endless stalemate and division created by our political representation over this Interstate highway political orthodoxy. Only your voices and votes are going to send the message to our political leaders that supporting this boondoggle has become a political liability. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over til it’s over”.

[Editor’s Note: Larry Gooley has wrote about the history of the rooftop highway project for the Almanack in November 2011.]

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2 Responses

  1. Big Burly says:

    A common sense article at a time when money is tight in NYS and at the Federal level — where our government is borrowing from China and elsewhere almost 40 cents of every dollar spent annually.
    US 11 is a critical artery for the North Country and we need to keep it up to date now. And counties, like St. Lawrence and others need to keep up their roads too.
    If money was unlimited, the I-98 concept would still be a waste.

  2. Paul says:

    Is it even cost effective to upgrade route 11 to expressway standards?